ORLANDO — Universal Studios Florida's Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley resets the standard for theme park environments, creating a wildly engaging setting that rewards visitors willing to delve into the abundant detail to be found in the new land.
No other theme park land in the world offers the level of detail Universal Orlando resort has packed into its new Harry Potter-themed land. Not even the original Wizarding World over at Islands of Adventure comes close to Diagon Alley in creating such an authentically convincing experience. As actress Evanna Lynch [Luna Lovegood] noted during this morning's press event, "you don't see roller coaster tracks" in this Harry Potter land. It's a faithful creation of what J.K. Rowling described in her Harry Potter books and creative artists Stuart Craig and Alan Gilmore designed for the Potter films.
Follow me for a tour:
In their conversation about Diagon Alley this morning, the Universal Creative team talked about going beyond the movie design for Diagon Alley to pack in even more detail found in the books. Don't make the mistake of reducing this land to numbers. It's far more than a couple of rides, a restaurant and some shops. Every one of the dozens of facades in Diagon Alley invites you to relive or imagine your own scenes from Rowling's world. It's a land meant to be inhabited, not simply visited. Pay attention to the details, allow your imagination to catch fire, and Diagon Alley will reward you with a trip to a land beyond your imagination. As Matthew Lewis [Neville Longbottom] said, "If we'd have filmed the movie here, we'd all been a lot better. You can't help but get brought into the role."
Most theme parks find ways to "suggest to express," using tricks such as forced perspectives to make locations seem grander than they are. But there are few such shortcuts here. The ceiling of The Leaky Cauldron restaurant, for example, soars above its customers, a full two stories above our heads.
Too often in theme parks, the theme extends only to a restaurant's decor, while the menu sells out to presumed consumer favorites. The original Wizarding World challenged the theme park industry by enforcing its theme in its food and beverage business, even going so far as to banish products from Universal's soft-drink partner from the land. You won't find chicken nuggets and hot dogs on menus in Hogsmeade, either, and you won't find them in Diagon Alley.
Instead, Universal has provided an expanded menu of British pub favorites, including Fisherman's pie, bangers and mash, a Ploughman's platter, and a fanciful collection of new drinks to enjoy.
Yes, you'll find Butterbeer here, but you'll also find new concoctions such as Fishy Green Ale, a minty beverage with "fish eggs" (a blueberry boba) at the bottom. A fan waiting outside the land asked if the Fishy Green Ale I was carrying had alcohol. It doesn't. My somewhat cynical, yet accurate, rule for deciphering a Wizarding World beverage menu is: If the price of a drink is under five bucks, there's no booze in it.
Money, of course, plays a prominent role in Diagon Alley. Its centerpiece is a bank, after all. Around the corner from Gringotts Bank, in Carkitt Market, you'll find the Gringotts Money Exchange, where a goblin animatronic behind the counter interacts with guests, answering their questions about the money exchange, where you really can swap your Muggle $10s and $20s for equivalent Gringotts Bank Notes, accepted at stores throughout the Wizarding World (and elsewhere in the Universal Orlando Resort, for that matter.)
It's a gimmick Disney tried first more than two decades ago with its Disney Dollars. But it makes far more sense here, as an more authentic element to draw you into the role of a visitor to Diagon Alley. Think of it as cosplay for your wallet.
Yes, there's much for sale here, including the much-hyped $45 interactive wands that trigger animation effects in selected windows here and in Hogsmeade. But I find it richly ironic to hear Disney fans complaining that Diagon Alley's "just" a Harry Potter mall when, with their next breath, they gush about the next upcoming Disney World merchandise event.
Look, people spend money on the stuff they love. Whether it's cars, cosplay, or theme park souvenirs, many of us love to express our passions through purchases. We buy this stuff because we want to feel authentic, and all this stuff around us helps to feel that. Harry Potter fans want their wands, their robes, their house scarves, and their Butterbeers. Universal (or some other theme park company) could have slapped some posters on a wall, piled stock-ordered desks with merchandise, ordered an off-the-shelf ride system with a Harry Potter skin, and raked in the cash.
But Universal didn't do that. Instead of letting us into Harry Potter's world to meet its needs of selling stuff, Universal sells stuff because it met our need to get into Harry Potter's world. Ask the thousands of cosplaying fans who lined up for hours to get into Hogsmeade and who will line up for hours to get into Diagon Alley when it opens officially on July 8. Ask the actors who stand slack-jawed on a Diagon Alley street, awed by the complete physical realization of what their films had tried to portray. There's a magic here in the feeling that Matthew Lewis began to describe, of being in a place that transports your imagination into something it even more easily accepts as reality.
To call this a theme park land diminishes it, for Diagon Alley exceeds anything ever before carrying that label. To fans longing to become part of the stories of their dreams, this is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
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